This is the golden age of tomatoes. Never have gardeners had more choices, from heirlooms to hybrids, huge beefsteaks to the tiniest, sweetest cherry tomatoes. True tomato junkies, though, are embracing the type celebrated for making the thickest, heartiest sauce: the paste tomato.
But paste tomatoes have more to offer. While they can’t be beat for making the best tomato sauce, paste, and salsa, their intense flavor, firm texture, and few seeds mean they are just as appealing whole, eaten right off the vine, or featured in recipes that usually call for other types of tomatoes.
Many of the newer varieties of paste tomatoes are bigger and heavier than their predecessors, with just as much robust flavor. This is a boon to the cook: Processing lots of sauce tomatoes can be tedious, and a larger tomato cuts down on the work. There’s less fruit to peel, deseed, and cook down.
Paste tomatoes have the same cultural requirements as other tomato types. Start seeds indoors following the directions on the seed packet, or buy transplants. Once plants are 6 to 8 weeks old, set them outside in the garden after any chance of frost, in rich soil improved with compost. Most will require support with stakes or cages. A thick layer of mulch and 1 inch of water per week should keep plants healthy and productive. We’ve chosen 11 paste tomato varieties—some new, some old—that merit space in the garden.
‘Big Mama’ is a hybrid Burpee exclusive that produces an 8-to-10-ounce, plum-shaped, very meaty tomato filled with old-fashioned flavor and few seeds. The skin comes off easily after a quick dip in boiling water. Like many newer hybrids, it’s dependably productive, setting up to 50 fruits per plant, even when temperatures are unfavorable. “The fruits keep attractive and uniform in size and shape throughout the long harvest season,” says Grace Romero, Burpee’s head horticulturist, about the 5-inch-by-3-inch size of ‘Big Mama’. “You can eat it fresh as a slicer, too,” she adds.
‘Jersey Giant’ continues the theme of the huge paste tomato. The thick-fleshed, large, long, tapered pepperlike tomatoes are prolific, need support, and have a sweet old-fashioned flavor that gardeners rave about. This heirloom tomato was headed for extinction until Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds rescued it from a failing North Carolina seed company. “They are firm like a paste tomato but have the full, rich, beefsteak tomato flavor,” Gettle says.
‘Roman Candle’ has an unusual, medium yellow skin with yellow stripes and pale yellow flesh. Inside, it’s smooth and creamy, with a wonderful fragrance and sweet flavor. ‘Roman Candle’ is meaty and dry, in a good way. “You can just take it out of the garden and eat it,” Gettle says.
‘San Marzano Redorta’, named for a mountain in Italy, is TomatoFest owner Gary Ibsen’s favorite paste tomato out of the 50 or so he grows. It’s another big, fat, plum-shaped tomato he claims is better tasting than the classic ‘San Marzano’, and, at 12 ounces, is twice the size. Plants produce heavily. Ibsen recommends eating this variety freshly picked in the summer sun; it’s also good for sauce or drying. He has a hard time keeping these precious seeds in stock. “It’s a wonderful old heirloom variety,” he says.
‘Carol Chyko’s Big Paste’ might be the biggest paste tomato on the market. Fruits of this heart-shaped heirloom weigh up to 3 pounds. “It’s great sliced up for sumptuous sandwiches,” Ibsen says, “and a delicious choice for sauces and canning.”
‘Rocky’ is another huge—up to 1 pound—heirloom tomato with the old-fashioned, full tomato flavor gardeners love. The fruits are 6 inches long, fat, yet elongated, finishing in a point. Ibsen doesn’t sell a lot of seed of the variety because it’s not well known. He recommends it highly, however; it contains all the qualities that deserve a place in the garden.
‘Amish Paste’ is widely popular and is really more of a dual-purpose tomato, as it’s rather juicy and the flavor is outstanding. This variety pumps out lots of 4-to-6-ounce red fruits through the summer. Tom Hauch from Heirloom Seeds was one of the first to commercialize ‘Amish Paste’ after encountering it on an Amish-run farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some believe the variety originated in Wisconsin, but it’s hard to say for sure. Hauch isn’t a huge paste tomato fan, favoring the taste of slicing tomatoes over most sauce varieties. In fact, when making sauce, he’ll incorporate ‘Red Brandywine’ or another favorite heirloom to give it the desired flavor. Although it takes longer to cook down, he prefers the taste.
‘Opalka’, an heirloom originating in Poland, is prized for its flavor. It’s a true paste tomato, very meaty, and sweeter than ‘Amish Paste’. It offers a very thin skin and is deep red with an elongated shape, making it almost pepperlike in appearance. Some fruits will reach 6 inches in length. The plant is vigorous, growing 6 feet or higher with wispy foliage.
‘Super Italian Paste’ is a big tomato, sometimes reaching up to 1 pound. It’s meaty and sweet, with irregular pear-shaped fruits. This one is good for canning, purees, and sauces, and will stand a long time after picking.
‘Polish Linguisa’ is an heirloom from the early 1800s. The big, 10-to-12-ounce bright red tomatoes are sausage-shaped, meaty, and sweet, in the mold of a traditional paste tomato. This tomato is wonderful diced and added to fresh salads.
‘Heidi’, an heirloom from Africa, produces 2 1/2-inch, flavorful tomatoes over a long season. Good for canning or eating fresh, it puts on tons of stubby, pear-shaped, thick-walled, elongated fruits. ‘Heidi’ was given to respected tomato maven Carolyn Male, Ph.D., author of 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden, by a student from Cameroon.
Sauce in 6 Minutes
One of the easiest, freshest sauces starts with minced garlic added to one to two tablespoons of hot extra-virgin olive oil. Sauté for about a minute, then carefully pour in a half-cup of cold stock. Add chopped paste tomatoes—no need to peel them first—season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, add two handfuls of chopped basil, and serve immediately over pasta. It’s a heavenly summer dish that showcases the power of fresh organic produce.
Avoiding Blossom-End Rot
Although paste tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, one problem that plagues many varieties is a susceptibility to blossom-end rot. The disease is caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant and characterized by a dry, sunken black lesion on the underside of the tomato where the flower was. It often starts when the tomato is green and eventually makes the fruit inedible.
To avoid blossom-end rot, be sure to keep the soil evenly moist. The calcium is often in the soil, but the plant fails to take it up due to extreme fluctuations of soil moisture. Blossom-end rot often occurs after periods of dry weather followed by downpours, or vice versa. The plants need 1 inch of water per week if rain is scarce.
Prevention is the key: Keep plants mulched with a thick layer of organic matter. Straw is a good choice, as it’s cheap and easy to find. Often only the first flush of fruit is affected by blossom-end rot, and as the season progresses, newer tomatoes will be fine.